August 24, 2005

Joe Strummer "Walker"

In 1986, shortly after dissolving his band The Clash, Joe Strummer teamed up with filmmaker Alex Cox. Strummer contributed music to his films Straight to Hell and Sid & Nancy, but only with Walker did Strummer provide an entire soundtrack. On the surface, it’s easy to understand why Strummer would involve himself; the story line involves rebels and government coups in South America, all done by an American businessman. It’s a gritty, hard-hitting film that depicts a rugged way of life and though somewhat of a B-movie, it’s the kind of polemic Strummer seemed to endorse. The Walker soundtrack has been Strummer’s most sought-after solo records, as it appeared only briefly in 1987, only to fall out of print for the next eighteen years.

On the surface, the concept of Strummer working with a handful of Mexican musicians sounds fascinating, but in execution, the results are a bit middling. As this is a film score, all but three of the selections on Walker are instrumental. These songs range from fascinating to downright bland, and one would be hard-pressed to identify Joe Strummer as the composer. While some songs have a really nice rhythm, such as “Nica Libre” and “Omotempe,” almost all of Walker sounds generic; most of it is forgettable and it certainly doesn’t sound like South America circa 1850. The three songs with vocals fare much better; “Tropic of No Return” has a pretty, gentle feel, accented by the sound of crickets, while “Tennessee Rain” and “The Unknown Immortal” both come close to the ethnic period feel that is missing from the rest of the Walker.

What makes Walker worthwhile, though, is it serves as a missing link between The Clash and the comeback with his band The Mescaleros. Much of Walker sounds like rehearsals for what would come to pass on songs like “The Road to Rock and Roll” and “Sandpaper Blues,” on 1999’s Rock Art and The X-Ray Style. In the context of what he would do a decade later, Walker makes sense, even if it doesn’t sound like Nicaragua circa 1850. That his first few experiments with the Latin groove didn’t succeed is nothing to hold against him; if anything, his experience with Walker probably whetted his desire to attempt to make music this worldly and this unique. (It’s perhaps best to forget Earthquake Weather at all costs, though, and aim directly towards his twilight resurgence.)

Joe Strummer was a man who was not afraid of taking a creative risk, and it wasn’t until the end of his life that he successfully melded world music with his punk sensibility. Walker was perhaps his first attempt at doing so, and it didn’t quite work. As it stands, the Walker soundtrack is more of a curiosity than an essential listen, an interesting collection of songs and ideas from a man who helped redefine modern rock music.

--Joseph Kyle

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